Bush v. Gore v. the Middle Ages

Last week was a good week for all those people who love to see candidates from the 2000 U.S. presidential election using the Middle Ages as a convenient rhetorical flog. In a bizarre twist of fate, both Al and George made major speeches that trotted out familiar anti-medieval tropes, and in an even more bizarre twist of fate, it was George W. Bush who actually came closer to the historical truth. Sadly, Ralph Nader was left out, probably due to that nefariously partisan Committee for Presidential Medieval Debates.*

In an October 5th speech to the “We Media” conference in New York, Al Gore referenced the medieval twice:

1) He called torture an “abhorrent, medieval behaviour.” No foul there, even though the torture everyone thinks about when they say “medieval torture” is really the Spanish Inquisition.
2) But worse, he said, “The values that Americans had brought from Europe to the New World had grown out of the sudden explosion of literacy and knowledge after Gutenberg’s disruptive invention broke up the stagnant medieval information monopoly and triggered the Reformation, Humanism, and the Enlightenment and enshrined a new sovereign: the ‘Rule of Reason.’

This second is, of course, the standard Enlightenment propaganda. Oh, the terror of the Middle Ages, when only monks could read and only monks had books and damn, don’t you hate the medieval church? Then, to the sound of trumpets, Gutenberg appeared out of the heavens to bring light to the masses.

Such propaganda doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. What was the first text Gutenberg printed? A one-page Bible. So much for destroying the church’s stranglehold on the discourse. And even if he had printed, “Why the Middle Ages are bad and why we should all become Renaissance Men Like Ben Franklin,” if there really was an information monopoly, who would have been able to read it? Books didn’t suddenly create a market for literacy. Literacy created a market for books. The first printers relied heavily on the non-monopolized, quite un-stagnant, but definitely medieval manuscript culture for layout, type conventions, and distribution networks, among other things. My expertise is in England, so I know more about English printers like William Caxton, and many of his early printings actually used employees of manuscript scriptoria to add the sorts of flourishes and decorations that people expected of their books. The fact that people expected anything of books should be a pretty clear indication that information wasn’t monopolized.

Did the printing press help accelerate the flow of information?–sure, but it didn’t create it.

On to Bush. His reference was more oblique, though a few news agencies picked up on it, which is how my usual Google trawl brought it to light. In his October 6th speech, Bush said of the Bin Laden-ites, “The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Why Spain to Indonesia? It’s not just a reference to the width and breadth of terrorist attacks over the last few years. It’s an indirect reference to one of Bin Laden’s stated goals, coming nearly four years to the day since his most famous reference to it.

On October 7th, 2001, Bin Laden released a tape which said, “Let the whole world know that we shall never accept that the tragedy of Al-Andalus would be*** repeated.” The tragedy of Al-Andalus? That’s when the Islamic Caliphate lost control of most of Spain, around the end of the Middle Ages. And before this defeat, the Muslim-controlled lands did indeed stretch from Spain to Indonesia.

So, for once, someone’s making a correct reference to something medieval. But it’s a deeply troubling reference. Bin Laden’s goal of recreating a unified Caliphate of all Muslims under one ruler is definitely disturbing, but in a way, every time Bush conflates Bin Laden’s goals with every other Muslim terrorist from Bali to Britain, doesn’t it bring us one step closer to Bin Laden’s conception of Muslim identity? Both Bush and Bin Laden assert, from different directions, that all right-thinking (or for Bush wrong-thinking) Muslims belong to one grand enterprise, one grand struggle, and thus the War on Terror becomes indistinguishable from the War Against a Revived Caliphate. Bin Laden wants a Crusade to defeat, like Saladin, and the more Bush argues that the war in Iraq is part and parcel of the war against Bin Laden’s Caliphate, the more the war becomes that Crusade that Bin Laden already claims that it is.

*Though unconfirmed reports** suggest that Nader did blame Henry IV of Germany for faulty suspension design of the 1963 Chevy Corvair.
**From me, in a joke I just made up.
***I don’t know whatever Arabic language Bin Laden speaks, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it has a subjunctive mood that the translator is rendering very clumsily here.

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  • Dr. Virago

    Excellent post, Carl! I may reference the first part in my opening rant (er, lecture) in my medieval lit. class next semester, which is going to have an emphasis on manuscript, circulation, and early print contexts. And way to turn your specialist blog towards current politics in that last part!

    Btw, slightly off immediate topic, about a week or so ago, both Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy, and Michael Berube (of his eponymous blog), bloggers extraordinaire, both used “medieval” as a disparaging adjective. Berube even used it to refer to people of a “pre-Gutenberg” mindset. Sigh. And from a blogger/academic I *heart*. So upsetting. (It was hard to bitch, though, because he inserted in the post a “head-em-off-at-the-pass” note to medievalists that he loves us.) And after two medievalists got on Twisty’s case, she even did it a second time. You know, if she’s going to blame the patriarchy, she really should be blaming Late Antiquity (as you suggested)! 🙂

  • Another Damned Medievalist

    No, she shouldn’t. There is nothing wrong with Late Antiquity. Even if some of the club don’t want to let in us Carolingianists who go earlier.

    But the Romans, both Antique and Late, had some serious torturers. Augustine was even able to justify torture by the state, and admitted the probably necessity of the office of carnifex IIRC from a conference paper I heard a couple of years ago.

  • Dr. Virago

    ADM, I’m sorry. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. (There was a lame and very unclear joke about “patriarchs” — i.e., the Fathers of the Church — in there, but still, I should think of the blog-o-friends I might be upsetting/insulting.)

    I blame *myself*. 🙂

  • Another Damned Medievalist

    Oh — now I get it! But I’d say that’s just Antiquity …

  • My medieval masters has renaissance bits…

    Isn’t the argument about ‘literacy’ just a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘litteratus’ anyway? Being literate meant reading Latin, but that didn’t stop a development of vernacular reading. I’ve just written an essay partly looking at Pecock’s writing in the vernacular and the confrontation with the Lollards. That plus Justice’s Writing the Rebellion and I’d argue that there was quite a demand for the written word. I think you’re exactly right to argue that printing helped supply a demand that was already in place rather than suddenly creating it out of nowhere.

    Not to denigrate the importance of the press by any means but all those Bibles they produced had to have some kind of audience already in place.

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